The game, if I remember correctly, began with Peter Makari, the co-leader of our trip, at the YWCA center in the Jalazone refugee camp near Ramallah. It wasn’t really a game, but a group of children crowding forward, shouting, “What’s your name?,” then waiting for our answers and for our return question: “What’s your name?” Their exuberance and energy and brightly colored t-shirts were at odds with the surrounding bleak streets of the camp we had just walked through. I learned a lot of names very quickly — I could hardly keep up — and I learned that there is joy in names. I knew that once.
I thought of those children when Mitt Romney’s analysis of the “dramatically stark difference in economic vitality” between Israel and “the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority,” made during his visit to Jerusalem, hit the headlines yesterday. Romney cited the power of culture, an innovative business climate, the Jewish history of thriving in difficult circumstances, and the hand of providence as the reasons for the difference. He said nothing about the history here. He said nothing about the occupation. He said nothing about the separation wall. He said nothing about water restrictions. He said nothing about land theft.The reader comments following the article in which I’d read about Romney’s explanations were just as bad. Several of them revealed an inability to consider Palestinians in any other terms but terrorism. “What’s your name?” No need for names; the label gives you all that you need to know and want to believe.
I remembered an experience I’d had in the Old City. We were walking through the narrow streets filled with shops when I spotted a display of head scarfs. I quickly ducked into a shop to purchase one. I had obtained some shekels in previous transactions and even though I now knew the exchange rate, I looked at the shekels and still had no idea how to count them. When the proprietor of the shop said the scarf was six dollars, I opened my wallet on the counter and asked him to take that amount from the mix of shekels, dollars and coins I had there. He seemed surprised. I think he felt awkward, but he saw that I really had no idea how much to give him. So he took the amount from my wallet and then he tried to teach me to count shekels, laying them out on his store counter, telling me the amount of each of them, and explaining the denominations of the coins.
My group was waiting. I thanked him and he said, “Be careful. Not everyone might be honest if you just give them all your money.” I thanked him again and picked up the scarf from the counter to go. Then I stopped and held out my hand. I said, “Nice to meet you.” His face lit up with a delighted smile and he shook my hand warmly. He said, “Nice to meet you, beautiful woman.” It was not meant as flattery and I would not have taken it as such especially in my current condition, a downturn in health that caused extreme hair loss, including most of my eyebrows, in the months before the trip. But I took it as the human currency it was, naming beauty in the exchange of hospitality, a trust and a recognition between strangers. He was a Palestinian. “What’s your name?”
What is the way to break through the labels that have been assiduously applied by what passes for news but is blatant propaganda — but to meet? What is the way to break through the labels that have been taken up by Americans to suit our own prejudices and fears — but to meet? We use labels for Palestinians to hide from ourselves, what we can’t name about us. What should we call the act of declaring an entire population of people terrorists? Terrorism, maybe? And what should we call it when oppression is denied and renamed providence?
What’s your name?